Building bespoke artificial cells and tissues on a chip for drug discovery

Dr. Katherine Elvira
University of Victoria

The ‘skin’ of the cell, the cell membrane, plays a crucial role in choreographing interactions between a cell and the outside environment, for example by allowing or prohibiting the access of drugs from the cell exterior to the cell interior.

Dr. Elvira designs and builds lab-on-a-chip devices, which are plastic chips the size of a postage stamp inside of which she can manipulate tiny amounts of liquids. She uses these lab-on-a-chip devices to create artificial cells to be able to study how the cell membrane regulates access to the cell interior.

The cells being created in Elvira’s lab are being developed to simulate any human tissue or cell membrane, including the blood-brain barrier, which screens out substances in the blood more aggressively than elsewhere in the body. This barrier is one of the factors that has hampered the development of effective treatments for Alzheimer disease and other forms of dementia.

The cost of developing a new drug is around 2.6 billion USD and a significant proportion of drug candidates fail because we could not predict how they interact with cell membranes. This research will help design drugs that can interact with cells more efficiently, so that they can get inside the cell in order to work properly.


Imagine a world without Alzheimer disease.